Featured Hike: MCP Outer Perimeter Route

Featured Hike: MCP Outer Perimeter Route

Published: March 20, 2023

2023 is the Year of the Trail in North Carolina and we invite you to spend it at Catawba County Parks! This series of articles will help you do that with details on suggested routes across our four parks. Our next featured hike is the Outer Perimeter Route at Mountain Creek Park.

Hike Statistics:
   Distance: 10 miles round-trip 
   Estimated Time: 4-5 hours 
   Elevation Gain: 750 feet 
   Difficulty: Moderate 

Hike Overview:
Mountain Creek Park, named after the creek that winds through the park, is nestled along a cove on the northwestern tip of Lake Norman. This 10.0-mile route follows the park’s outer perimeter along the edge of the lake, the inlets of two creeks and the border of two distinct parcels of woods. It travels through a loblolly forest on the south side of the park, crossing over Mountain Creek into an old-growth forest on the park’s north side, offering a chance to observe different habitats, viewpoints, wildlife and plant life for a long-distance outing at Catawba County’s newest park. The hike, though relatively gentle in steepness, is rated moderate for its length.

Directions to Trailhead:
From Newton, travel south on NC Hwy 16 to Buffalo Shoals Rd and turn left. In 0.6 miles, turn right onto Little Mountain Rd and travel 4.8 miles to the entrance of Mountain Creek Park on the left.

From the park entrance, follow the signs for the upper trailhead and lakefront, circling around the roundabout to go straight. In 0.5 miles, turn left into the upper trailhead parking area across from the dog park. The hike begins at the trailhead for Sunday Stroll and Sherrills Pass.

Hike Description & Details:
Begin on the sidewalk at the parking area, which turns to natural surface before reaching the trailhead posts; take the hike-only trail to the right, Sunday Stroll. The entrance into the woods is a sight to behold in April with a stunning display of cotton-candy colored blossoms of the pinxter azalea bush blooming on the right, with its lavish clusters of pink funnel-shaped flowers embellished with long curved stamens protruding from the middle. The single-track path leads into the woods and travels 550 feet before crossing a wide clearing under a powerline. As it reenters the loblolly forest, it travels on a rolling terrain to a series of switchbacks for a descent to a creek crossing at 0.26 miles, then parallels the meandering creek on a slight incline, past a bench tree at 0.35 miles to a wooden bridge a few steps ahead. It then diverges around a pair of trees in the middle of the trail at 0.45 miles and swings to the left on a gentle climb up to the junction with Sherrills Pass at 0.58 miles.

Take a sharp right turn onto the multi-use Sherrills Pass trail that is shared with bikers, as are the majority of the trails within the park and all of the remaining ones this route follows. Mountain Creek Park’s trail system was designed to optimize mountain biking and includes technical features such as rollers, berms, table tops and jumps, most of which are found on the bike-only trails; the multi-use ones, while built on a foundation of rolling grade dips, are less technical and hiker-friendly. In addition to bikers on the trail, you may notice a Carolina Thread Trail marker on a tree on the right as you turn onto Sherrills Pass, designating the trail as part of the regional network of connected greenways, trails and blueways through 15 counties in North and South Carolina. The Carolina Thread Trail marker, with its logo inspired by one of the oldest traditional quilt patterns, the Eight-Pointed Star, will be a common sight throughout the hike.

The trail meanders but remains relatively flat through numerous twists and curves as it makes its way to parallel the powerline you crossed earlier. It intersects a service road at 0.7 miles and comes to an obstructed view of a cove of Lake Norman at 0.85 miles. Resist the temptation to head off-trail here for a clear view as one will present itself at 0.92 miles. Aside from the vista from the park’s fishing pier, this is one of the best panoramas within the entire park so be sure to take in the sight. Especially noticeable are the mudflats which are exposed during times when lake levels are low, as controlled by a Duke Energy dam. These mudflats create the perfect habitat for great blue herons, kingfishers, great egrets, ducks, killdeer, and other shorebirds that often perch at the flats year-round. Predatory birds such as hawks and bald eagles can be seen soaring overhead throughout the year, joined by ospreys from March to October; colorful migratory birds like warblers, indigo buntings, and rose-breasted grosbeaks arrive in spring while kinglets, pine siskins, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers make their residence at the park in winter. Woodpeckers and owls can be found throughout, their hoots and pecks adding to the park’s avian symphony that plays softly in the background during any visit. 

The trail swings away from the cove, reenters the woods and comes to the junction with Milk and Honey at a map stand at 1.05 miles. Continuing on Sherrills Pass to the right, descend via one switchback to a bridge crossing over a creek at 1.09 miles, then ascend steadily on the other side to another map stand at the junction with Loblolly Loop at 1.15 miles. Take a right to follow Loblolly Loop over a wooden bridge and past a “Biking: Wrong Way” sign, then keep right at the fork with Dutch Oven at 1.16 miles. The trail veers left, offering a distant and obstructed view at 1.27 miles of the cove of Lake Norman and the mouth of Mountain Creek which it parallels for the next quarter mile. Come to another junction with Dutch Oven at 1.42 miles, cross over a wooden platform a few steps ahead and take a right at the fork. The banks in this section of the trail explode with trout lilies blooming in March. Named for its elliptic leaves’ brown mottled coloring that resembles trout fish skin, the ephemeral perennial bears a single nodding yellow flower on a long, skinny stem and grows in huge colonies that can completely cover a forest floor in a golden blanket in early spring, as it does here.

Another unique wildflower makes an appearance in May on the Loblolly Loop, especially at the spot just before the trail comes to the bridge crossing over Mountain Creek at 1.52 miles: the elusive pink lady slipper. A member of the orchid family, the pink lady slipper has two opposite leaves at its base and a large pink flower at the end of a tall, erect stalk; the flower’s petals form a downward facing pouch that resembles a slipper or moccasin with a split in the front. Bees are lured by the flower’s bright color and sweet scent into the pouch through the front slit, where they are trapped, with their only point of escape past a pollen mass on the flower’s stigma – a path that ensures pollination. But in order to survive and reproduce, the lady slipper depends on its symbiotic relationship with a fungus found in the soil of the pine trees under which it grows, which explains why transplanting the distinctive wildflower has very low success rates.

The 10-mile hike continues with a crossing over the bridge to the north side of the park; it can be shortened to just under 5 miles by not crossing the bridge and instead bearing left here to the rightmost fork of the Loblolly Loop as it continues its way around the south side. For the full experience, cross the bridge over Mountain Creek, stopping to look for any river otters that may be seen on rare occasion frolicking on the edge of the water. At the map stand on the other side of the bridge is the junction of the Mountain Creek Loop and Wampus Way; turn sharply right onto the Mountain Creek Loop trail denoted with an arrowed orange hiker marker indicating the hiking direction and passing by a “Bikers: Wrong Way” sign a few steps ahead. 

A large concentration of spicebushes adorns the entrance into the woods here in early spring with bright yellow flowers and in late summer with red berry-like fruit, their leaves aromatic with a spicy, citrusy smell when crushed, earning the bush its alternate name of wild allspice. The single-track path heads into a loblolly forest away from the creek and around a gully before swinging back down to the edge of the cove of Lake Norman at the mouth of Mountain Creek. It travels on a rolling terrain through a riparian zone, abutting a cove forest on the right and a loblolly forest on the left. The monoculture loblolly forest, duotone with shades of brown at the bottom and green at the top year-round, is contrasted by the diverse cove forest comprised of American beech, hickory, oak and slippery elm trees that change their hues seasonally. Lush and green in spring and summer, it is the fall that brings the biggest spectacle with assorted shades of yellow, crimson and brown. But even in winter, when most of the trees are bare of foliage, the tardily deciduous American beech draws attention with its brown, papery leaves that hang on until spring due to a process scientifically called leaf marcescence.

An obstructed view of Mountain Creek awaits at 1.89 miles where the trail swings away from the bank, descending via a series of switchbacks to creek level and paralleling the water for the next 1.17 miles. It passes the junction with Puddle Jump at 2.18 miles before opening up at 2.22 miles for a view of another cove of Lake Norman and a powerline clearing which it passes through at 2.25 miles. On the other side, Mountain Creek Loop comes to a junction with Shiners Stash on the left at 2.32 miles; bear right at the fork and follow the trail as it continues to make its way around the cove. Wooden duck boxes and duck blinds can be seen on the edge of the lake, remnants of when the property was owned by Duke Energy and open to hunting. The trail climbs slightly to a wooden bridge at 2.52 miles and continues to climb up gradually above creek level, offering great but obstructed views of the cove and mudflats between miles 2.58-2.9. As the path veers left and begins to head north along another inlet of an unnamed creek, it passes through an area that is noticeably green especially in the muted tones of winter due to a large concentration of evergreen holly bushes, Virginia pines, various types of moss, green onions and running cedar, a groundcover plant related to ferns also known as fan clubmoss for its branches arranged in fan-like sprays. Signs of beaver activity, such as markings of the animals’ wide front incisors, gnawed branches or hourglass-shaped tree stumps, can be seen along this stretch, indicators of the presence of the semiaquatic rodents which share the park with muskrats, river otters, fox squirrels, deer and voles.

Bear right to stay on the Mountain Creek Loop as it comes to a junction with Miners Run at 3.07 miles, Iron Lung at 3.11 miles and Cable Ferry at 3.28 miles before entering a clearing at 3.32 miles and traveling over a series of rolling grade dips underneath the powerline. As it reenters the woods into a pine forest, the trail crosses a wooden platform, follows a few curves, ascends gradually, parallels a gully, passes a junction with Rabbit Race at 3.47 miles before flattening out and returning to parallel the unnamed creek on the right on its way to a junction with Baked Possum at 3.64 miles. Lesser periwinkle blankets the ground in this section of the trail, showing off its large lavender-blue flowers in early spring when the yellow of blooming daffodils and flowering forsythias adds to the scene that likely once served as a homestead site. A uniquely shaped large white oak tree at 3.73 miles is hard to miss with its short stocky trunk and 6 massive horizontal limbs extending outward and upward. The trail swings slightly to the right, descends and curves around as it continues to parallel the unnamed creek, passing over a small bridge to the junction with Hot Hole at 3.88 miles and a larger bridge before crossing under another powerline at the 4 mile point.

The ecosystem on the other side of the powerline is noticeably different as the route enters a hardwood forest dominated by beech trees at the northernmost boundary of the park bordering a residential area. The woods soon reduce to saplings of young oak, maple, poplar and early successional species, suggesting that the area must have been clear-cut in recent years; holly bushes fill the space in between and periwinkle and running cedar carpet the ground. The path twists and curves, passing a junction with Ladderback at 4.3 miles and crossing 6 times over the next 0.7 miles under a powerline clearing narrower than the ones before. The clearing is home to seven species of asters which bloom from late summer through fall, painting the scenery here in shades of purple, white and yellow. The daisy-like flowers attract a variety of butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies found fluttering by throughout the park.

Past the last powerline crossing, the path reenters the woods at 4.77 miles and borders a hardwood forest on the right and a pine forest on the left. The natural surface is noticeably red colored here, indicating soil rich in iron; prevalent rolling grade dips in this section remind hikers again that they are sharing the path with mountain bikers. The trail descends to a crossing over a small creek at 4.9 miles, then follows next to it, offering a view of its heavily eroded banks and rocky creek bed that creates a babbling sound as water travels downstream. The creek is louder at its next crossing on a wooden bridge at 5.13 miles, hinting at a small water feature nearby. The edge of the creek is inhabited by mountain laurel which blooms May through June with bell-shaped flowers whose coloring resembles that of peppermint candies.

The terrain past the bridge is rocky as the trail travels along the creek on the other side, ascends to a switchback and continues paralleling the creek to a view of the last bridge in the gully on the right at 5.36 miles. It continues its ascent as it veers away from the creek to flatten out before beginning a gradual descent through a series of turns and twists to a junction with Old Boozy at 5.83 miles, then drops down to creek level for a view at 5.88 miles of the north and south forks of Mountain Creek coming together. River cane decorates the trail as it travels along the south fork of Mountain Creek, passing next to patches of trout lilies that bloom here in early March along with mayapples that appear  later in the month, flower in April and blanket the area through early June. Sometimes referred to as the “umbrella plant” for its deeply lobed, umbrella-shaped leaves, the mayapple is unique for the single, fragrant white flower hidden in the Y of the stem underneath its leaves. 

Continue on the Mountain Creek Loop to a service road crossing at 5.95 miles and a small wooden bridge at 6.04 miles, just past which an interesting grouping of 6 trees draws attention on the right. As the trail climbs noticeably through a series of curves to parallel a main powerline at 6.09 miles, it crosses the service road again at 6.17 miles and travels on a rolling terrain past a bench tree at 6.32 miles and a wooden bridge over a small stream at 6.39 miles. On the other side of the bridge, it ascends out of the gully to come to a junction with Haymaker at 6.47 miles. The two trails combine and travel under the powerline to a junction with Wampus Way at 6.49 miles. Keep right at the fork to stay on the Mountain Creek Loop as it re-enters the woods and travels on a twisty path via a series of curves to the completion of the loop at the junction with Wampus Way and the trailhead for the Mountain Creek Loop’s start at the map stand and bridge at 6.68 miles.

Cross on the bridge over Mountain Creek back to the main side of the park where you’ll come to a three-way junction with Loblolly Loop and the park’s service road; keep to the far right to follow the forward-arrowed orange hiking blaze and the Carolina Thread Trail marker. The route quickly comes to a junction with Tomtastic, which splits off to the left at 6.77 miles; bear right to stay on the Loblolly Loop as it curves around the edge of a dry pond that’s home to amphibians such as spring peepers and upland chorus frogs whose names are clearly understandable during mating season in late winter when their calls and trills are especially rowdy. Late winter also brings sight of salamander eggs in puddles throughout the park; once hatched, the visually-striking yellow-spotted salamanders can be found under logs or out and about on wet days. Yellow-bellied sliders take to fallen logs in creeks or along its shorelines where spiny softshell turtles can also be spotted. Eastern box turtles prefer the woods where they are joined by Eastern fence lizards that scurry away swiftly when disturbed from their task of basking in the sun.

Past the dry pond, the trail crosses over a service road and climbs slightly to a second junction with Tomtastic at 6.85 miles. The trail continues climbing and curves to the right, lined with river cane as it follows Mountain Creek flowing below on the right. The path crosses the service road again at 6.9 miles and curves to the left for another view of the sandy beaches of Mountain Creek on the right before swinging away from the creek and climbing up more steeply to a wooden bridge at 7 miles. It traverses the side of a hill that drops off steeply on the right, the banks embellished with lush evergreen fronds of Christmas fern, before descending gradually to the junction with Jug Town, the post topped with an old glass jug, at 7.11 miles.

Continuing on the Loblolly Loop for the next 1.57 miles, it is apparent that the trail is named for the pine forest it travels through. The scenery is homogenous as the path winds through a former Duke Energy loblolly pine plantation, with the trees planted in neat, evenly-spaced rows for the purpose of being logged and turned into power poles. The ground is covered with a duff of pine needles decorated with patchy moss and the two-tone evergreen heart-shaped leaves of the little brown jug plant which hides its unique urn-shaped flower at ground level when it blooms in April. In winter months, a distinctive blotched green leaf with a purple underside draws attention in spots where the crane-fly orchid will poke through in summer after disappearing completely for 2 months in spring when other wildflowers make their appearance. Bloodroot, a member of the poppy family, is a showy one with a solitary white flower and a bright yellow middle only revealed when the bloom opens in full sun after being closed at night. The pine needles also hide the presence of deer truffles, the existence of which is indicated in autumn and winter by holes burrowed by raccoons, skunks or squirrels who sniff and dig them out to enjoy for their next meal. The hard-packed trail meanders through the loblolly forest on a rolling terrain, broken up by numerous wooden platforms and bridges as it crosses gullies, dry creek beds and the park’s main service road, passing a junction with the other end of Jug Town Jump at 7.75 miles before completing the loop at a map stand at the junction with Sherrills Pass at 8.72 miles.

Turn right onto Sherrills Pass as it parallels a stream on the left down to a wooden bridge crossing at 8.78 miles. The trail then climbs steeply via one switchback up to the junction with Milk and Honey that goes off to the right at a map stand at 8.82 miles. You can opt to keep straight to stay on Sherrills Pass for a slightly quicker return to your vehicle, but this route instead takes the sharp turn onto Milk and Honey as it winds its way to the south along the western edge of the park, crossing a service road at 9.11 miles and again at 9.4 miles. Avoid the left turn onto Sherrills Pass a few steps ahead of the crossing and instead take the right fork to parallel the service road before coming to a junction at 9.57 miles with Terrell’s Folly to the right and Oh Deer! to the left. Take the middle path to stay on Sherrills Pass which crosses over a wooden bridge at 9.61 miles and immediately comes to a junction with Aww Shucks that goes off to the right; take the left fork to stay on Sherrills Pass. The trail parallels Aww Shucks before crossing over an old forest road at 9.74 miles and veering off to the left and traveling parallel to the powerline. It enters the clearing under the powerline at 9.87 miles and travels across it, the ground bestrewn with great mullein. An invasive plant of low-growing rosettes of felt-like leaves, the mullein dies completely after flowering in its second year on a stalk 5-10 feet tall densely grouped with small yellow, 5-petaled flowers that bloom throughout the summer, each individual blossom opening before dawn and closing by mid-afternoon. The trail re-enters the woods at 9.94 miles and travels on a rolling terrain to the terminus of this hike at the upper trailhead where you parked for a total distance of 10.02 miles.

Mileage Breakdown:

  • 0.00 – start of hike at upper trailhead
  • 0.1 - 0.15 – trail travels through clearing under powerline
  • 0.30 – crossing over a stream
  • 0.35 – bench tree and wooden bridge
  • 0.45 – pair of trees in the middle of the trail
  • 0.58 – junction with Sherrills Pass 
  • 0.70 – service road crossing
  • 0.92 – open view of cove
  • 1.05 – map stand at junction with Milk and Honey 
  • 1.09 – creek crossing over a wooden bridge
  • 1.15 – map stand at junction with Loblolly Loop 
  • 1.16 – junction with Dutch Oven 
  • 1.27 – distant view of cove and mouth of Mountain Creek on right
  • 1.42 – junction with Dutch Oven and wooden bridge
  • 1.44 – fork in trail
  • 1.52 – bridge over Mountain Creek
  • 1.57 – map stand at junction with Mountain Creek Loop and Wampus Way
  • 2.18 – junction with Puddle Jump 
  • 2.25 - 2.32 – trail travels through clearing under powerline
  • 2.32 – junction with Shiners Stash 
  • 2.52 – wooden bridge
  • 2.58 – obstructed view of cove and mud flats
  • 3.07 – junction with Miners Run 
  • 3.11 – junction with Iron Lung 
  • 3.28 – junction with Cable Ferry 
  • 3.32 - 3.35 – trail travels through clearing under powerline
  • 3.45 – junction with Rabbit Race 
  • 3.64 – junction with Baked Possum 
  • 3.73 – large oak tree on left
  • 3.88 – junction with Hot Hole 
  • 4.0 - 4.03 – trail travels through clearing under powerline
  • 4.12 / 4.26 / 4.45 / 4.55 / 4.67 – trail travels under powerline
  • 4.9 / 5.13 – bridge crossing over a creek with rocky water feature
  • 5.83 – junction with Old Boozy 
  • 5.95 – service road crossing
  • 6.04 – cluster of 6 trees
  • 6.17 – service road crossing
  • 6.32 – bench tree
  • 6.47 – junction with Haymaker 
  • 6.49 – junction with Wampus Way 
  • 6.68 – map stand and junction with Wampus Way at bridge over Mountain Creek
  • 6.74 – 3 way junction of Loblolly Loop and service road
  • 6.77 & 6.85 – junction with Tomtastic 
  • 6.90 – forest road crossing and view of Mountain Creek
  • 7.07 – junction with Jug Town Jump 
  • 7.20 – forest road crossing
  • 7.75 – junction with Jug Town Jump 
  • 7.87 / 8.06 – service road crossing
  • 8.72 – map stand at junction with Sherrills Pass 
  • 8.78 – bridge over stream
  • 8.82 – map stand at junction with Milk and Honey 
  • 9.11 – service road crossing
  • 9.40 – service road crossing and junction with Sherrills Pass 
  • 9.57 – junction with Terrells Folly and Oh Deer! 
  • 9.61 – wooden bridge and junction with Aww Shucks 
  • 9.74 – forest road crossing
  • 9.87 - 9.94 – trail travels through clearing under powerline
  • 10.02 – end of hike at upper trailhead parking

Visitor Reviews:
AWESOME LOCATION. My first time there and I will definitely be back. AllTrails Review
Very well-maintained and clean. AllTrails Review

We were looking for a place near home to get in a few hills and a nice hike. This park has everything. Everything is well marked so once you figure out what you want, it is a wonderful hike. AllTrails Review

It was smooth, shaded, beautiful flora and not busy. AllTrails Review

Trails are well groomed, mostly hard clay. Few bike riders but courteous. Well marked trail maps. Conveniently located… Option for longer hike. Conifer and deciduous trees. Quiet end of Lake Norman. Hoping to view a few migratory birds. AllTrails Review

Hike Video:

Other Routes in the Series: